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In my links roundup for Friday I included this article describing the alleged finding of a first-century fragment of manuscript with text from the Gospel of St Mark. I don't remember how I came across it; my memory is that I followed a link to it from a summary found somewhere else (I originally thought Huffington Post but don't see it now). In any case, I wish I had been a bit more thorough; the link I chose is the Indian syndication of an American evangelical news service, and in general I prefer to link to primary material (which this is not) rather than journalistic coverage - particularly when as in this case, it is actually old news; my link was more than ten days after the 20 February news story, which itself reported an event held on 1 February.

I would have been better to link to this 20 February radio interview with the scholar at the centre of the controversy, Daniel Wallace, which gives some more details - though not really much more - of the find: this is a manuscript which came from Egypt somehow, and has so far been dated by one unidentified but apparently well-regarded palaeography expert to the first century.(The radio host makes the puzzling remark that "it can't be later than 51", which cannot be correct; Wallace does not either confirm or correct the remark.) Mutterings elsewhere indicate that it may (or may not) be part of the Green Collection, possibly a papyrus fragment from a late Egyptian mummy.

Tracking through internet discussion of this, I have become rather depressed by the poor quality of the debate between liberal and evangelical theologians. The evangelicals seem delighted by the idea that this discovery - if it is true - will push back the known fragments of manuscript to within the lifetime of the apostles, and may (or may not) indicate that the specific fragment of text on it has (or has not) remained unchanged since the earliest days. The liberals, on the other hand, have been mocking the evangelicals for a fake manuscript that isn't even the piece in question.

Myself, I've done a wee bit of New Testament Greek and scriptural analysis, and I've done a wee bit more palaeography and attempts to reconstruct original texts (of a much later date) from various manuscript versions, enough altogether to make me feel that both the evangelicals and the liberals who I've read on this particular topic seem to me to be approaching it with too many preconceptions. If we do have a genuine first century manuscript, that should be a cause for general celebration, full stop. Scholars will certainly continue to debate what it means and how significant it is, but a couple of verses of Mark's gospel in a fragment of a first-century manuscript can't and won't ever prove that the entire New Testament reached its present form by AD 70.

(Though at least none of the people I have read on this question are King James-ers.)

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
hawkwing_lb
Mar. 5th, 2012 01:51 am (UTC)
If the radio host meant it can't be earlier than 51, I'd be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. (Since textual criticism seems inclined to accept that Mark is later than Paul, as far as I remember.) But "first century" is still a broad date range, and the first century is - as far as I recall - not a great century for papyri survivals the way the second and third are anyway. (I mean, the Rylands John fragment is probably Hadrianic, which isn't that much later.)

More interesting is that it would be definite evidence for first century Nazarenes in Egypt. Which is interesting in how it might relate to the transmission of proto-Christianity to the Jewish communities in Egypt, and to the existing popularity of apocalyptic/millenial sentiment in an Egyptian context... and now I'm getting onto a hobbyhorse and will stop.
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